Constitution Sunday: James Wilson Replies to William Findley

Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention.

December 1, 1787

James Wilson, one of the most eloquent and artful of his time, spoke at Pennsylvania’s Ratifying Convention on December 1, 1787 about the merits of the draft Constitution. One of the crucial components of the draft was its creation of the legislature as a “restrained” legislature; a legislature that would “give permanency, stability and security” to the new government.

The Constitution was set to create a legislature vested not only with passive power but active power, and “for all kinds of despotism, this is the most dreadful and the most difficult to be corrected.” Wilson spoke of previous legislatures that made “laws in one session” only to have those laws “repealed the next” session, “either on account of the fluctuation of party, or their own impropriety.” Because the proposed legislature only had as much power as the people granted it, had each of its bills reviewed for approval by the executive, and had its eventual laws subject to challenge in the judiciary, these restraints—according to Wilson—would make it a legislature superior to those which preceded it.

While Wilson’s vision for the Congress arguably did not come to pass (or at least not to the extent he may have hoped), the checks that the Constitution put in place have been effective in moderating what any Congress may have done to exceed its legislative powers that the Constitution gave it. While there have been instances of Congress passing bills in one session only to have those reversed the following session due to changes in party position or otherwise, those instances have not been nearly as frequent as executive actions which are solely reversing the previous executive’s actions. As Wilson posited, the judiciary almost immediately became a strong check on the Congress, and it continues to be over two centuries later; likewise, each executive has reviewed the bills submitted to him for signature and often used his veto power during that review. Thus, the most crucial features of the Constitution—its restraints on power, its preference for deliberation and circumspection in bringing about fundamental changes, and its empowering the people—remain steadfast. It is that measured approach to government that has allowed the people to reshape the government in their image but only incrementally and partially; only to the extent that the passions of the moment last long enough to reflect into the House of Representatives and the Senate. Wilson’s identifying the restraints built into the Constitution demonstrated his aspirations for the country, and having those restraints in place—even if eroded—permits the Congress and the federal government as a whole to be one of “permanency, stability, and security.”

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